Armando Orsini, 88, gallant New York City restaurateur

Brothers Elio (left) and Armando Orsini at their restaurant. Brothers Elio (left) and Armando Orsini at their restaurant.
By Paul Vitello
New York Times / July 22, 2011

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NEW YORK - Armando Orsini, a New York restaurant owner whose good looks and Continental courtliness defined the atmosphere of dolce vita that made Orsini’s, on East 56th Street, a favorite hangout in the 1960s of movie stars, society people, and diners willing to pay dearly to sit near them in velvety darkness, died July 13 in Asheville, N.C. He was 88.

The cause was complications of diabetes, said his wife, Georgianna.

Mr. Orsini and his younger brother, Elio, started their restaurant as a small cafe in 1953, later expanded it and operated it continuously until 1984 - a formidable 31-year run during a time, before the dominance of celebrity chefs, when restaurateurs were considered more important than the food they served.

“No one goes to Orsini’s for the food,’’ the restaurant critic Gael Greene wrote in New York magazine in 1968. “Orsini’s,’’ she explained, “is theater.’’

Mr. Orsini’s sense of stagecraft, which he employed in creating a communal and open-house atmosphere with carefully maintained E-ZPass lanes for his VIPs, extended to waiters in formal attire, red velvet walls, chandeliers, and muted candlelight.

Women were among his most loyal customers. Gloria Vanderbilt was said to have become a regular in the early 1950s. Marylou Whitney frequently had lunch in the upstairs room, where Orsini sometimes grated her Parmesan personally.

His personal history, which became part of his appeal, always remained somewhat mysterious. By some accounts, he worked in the construction trades after arriving in New York from Rome at the end of World War II. By other accounts, he was a university-trained architectural engineer. He was the son of a cruise ship captain in one version, or the son of a deckhand who left his wife.

By all accounts, he was living in Greenwich Village when he married Lili St. Cyr in 1950, just before she became the most famous stage stripper of her time. They divorced in 1953.

Whether St. Cyr bankrolled the restaurant that Mr. Orsini and his brother started that year, as some accounts have it, is unknown.

“I never knew whether she put the money up for it, but there’s no doubt that her connection was a big help in getting famous people to start coming to the restaurant,’’ said Paola Orsini, the daughter of Elio Orsini, who died in 2006.

By the early 1960s, Orsini’s was the kind of place that paparazzi staked out. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton went there. Marcello Mastroianni. Yul Brynner. In his memoir, “In Spite of Myself,’’ Christopher Plummer described an evening in 1960 when “the six of us shared late after-show suppers at Orsini’s watched over by its owner, that handsome princely Roman, Armando.’’

The six were Plummer and his girlfriend, plus Lauren Bacall, Jason Robards, Laurence Olivier, and Joan Plowright. Georgianna Orsini, who married Mr. Orsini in 1960, said that aside from his “innate charm and good taste,’’ the secret of her husband’s success lay in two policies he and his brother adopted early on. “They never called the newspapers with tips. Never,’’ she said. “And they stayed open on Sunday nights, when everybody else was closed.’’

After closing the original Orsini’s in 1984 and planning to retire, the brothers opened another Orsini’s on 63d Street, which lasted two years before closing in 1989, and tried one more, called Orsinini’s (the name means Little Orsini’s), on 50th Street, which lasted only briefly.

Mr. Orsini and his wife later moved to Florida and then settled in North Carolina.